at the Auditorium Theatre

February 2-13, 1988

American Ballet Theatre’s programming for their annual Chicago engagement embodies the tension between classicism and romanticism that marks ballet in America. A classical choreographic style emphasizes discipline, simplicity, harmony; the romantic emphasizes enthusiasm, intricacy, emotion.

In ABT’s repertory, George Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante and Ballet Imperial represent the extreme of classicism. Both works are about dancing–rich and varied movement is repeated in ever-changing combinations by different dancers arranged about the stage in shifting patterns. Balanchine often referred to music as “the floor we dance on,” insisting his dancers achieve a special musicality, a visible harmony between score and movement. Unfortunately, that harmony often goes awry. In Symphonie Concertante, the two principal ballerinas frequently dance in unison: but even when they move as one, as Christine Dunham and Cheryl Yeager did, comparison of the two is inevitable. Dunham is propelled by the music; she inhabits it, breathes it. And while Yeager is a beautiful dancer, she seems a beat behind, struggling to catch up to Dunham and the score.

ABT’s Sleeping Beauty is both a classic and a classical delight: the choreography–Kenneth MacMillan’s reinterpretation of the original by Marius Petipa–is crisp, brilliant, and demanding, and calls for virtuosic dancing as well as convincing mime. ABT’s production offers both.

Martine van Hamel’s Princess Aurora is picture perfect–sparkling, weightless, vivacious. Her movements incorporate references to each of her six fairy godmothers’ choreography–including Serenity’s skips on pointe, the spritely pique tours of Benevolence, the flicking fingers of Generosity–the kinesthetic representation of their christening gifts to her. Van Hamel’s apparent effortlessness minimizes the role’s difficulty; her dancing characterizes Aurora as both young and knowing, playful and regal. She takes significant risks–holding a balance a fraction of a second longer, extending her leg just a shade higher–that infuse her Aurora with spontaneity and grandeur. The same daring and individuality animate John Gardner’s Blue Bird and Alessandra Ferri’s Princess Florine in the Act III divertissements as well.

Mime is a fixture in classical narrative ballet, indispensable for establishing character and furthering the plot. Unfortunately, most American dancers treat mime as a necessary evil, to be glossed over as quickly as possible; it tends to look silly, stuck on, indecipherable. The mime in ABT’s Sleeping Beauty is distinctly un-American–the audience understands every bit of Carabosse’s death threat, the queen’s pleas, the Lilac Fairy’s reprieve; clearly artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov’s own training enriches the company. We also tend to treat character roles as the pasture old dancers graze, rather than interesting work with different conventions, structure, and appeal. Victor Barbee’s wonderfully wicked Carabosse shows just how rich such a role can be.

While Sleeping Beauty and Giselle are both evening-length, narrative ballets, they represent the two poles of the ballet tradition. Sleeping Beauty is classical–crisp, sharp, deceptively simple, a matter of careful finish and proportion; Giselle romantic–imaginative, picturesque, a matter of passion.

The first act tells the story of a poor, trusting child beguiled by a noble rake. It feels somewhat negligible, as if the story could have been better told some other way or in some other medium, a feeling the dancers seem to share in this surprisingly slow, lackluster performance. Neither the corps’ perfect timing and placement in the peasant dances nor Giselle’s mad scene can enliven this act. Surely this is the reason act two is often performed alone.

In act two, Giselle’s ghost saves Albrecht from death at the hands of the vengeful Wilis, fellow victims of unrequited love. No story, no poem, could ever convey the nature of the Wilis as this dance does. At first they simply float across the stage, veiled and barely animate; when they reappear, their dance is icy, ethereal, distinctly otherworldly. Cynthia Anderson, dancing incantations and ills, is the chief Wili, Myrta; Amy Rose and Lucette Katerndahl her eerie assistants. The Wilis’ unison choreography is so precisely realized that it often looks as if there were no dancers on the stage at all, merely wisps of net blown across the graveyard by a cold wind.

Alessandra Ferri’s Giselle is an exquisite creature neither girl nor ghost; Julio Bocca’s Count Albrecht a wretch not quite beyond redemption. When Myrta demands that Albrecht dance himself to death, Giselle interposes; she dances with him and for him until Myrta’s power wanes at dawn. Ferri and Bocca embody the romantic ideal in these solos and duets: she is dainty and delicate yet determined; he is strong, sad, suddenly sensitive. Ferri is floating femininity, Bocca soaring virility.

Clark Tippet’s new Bruch Violin Concerto no. 1, though not a narrative work, is well within the romantic tradition. The choreography is charged with a sensual, even sexual, energy. The first movement features Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner in dramatic movement that suggests flamenco, and Leslie Browne and Ricardo Bustamante in choreography that emphasizes sustained lifts and clever partnering. The dancing of the second movement features Susan Jaffe and Robert Hill; it suggests a gentle waltz and other ballroom forms. The third focuses upon Amy Rose and Robert Wallace in quirky, angular movement. Unfortunately, the colors of Dain Marcus’s costumes–deep red, teal blue, royal purple, and dusty rose for the four principal couples, with bile green and muddy brown for the corps–are so violently distracting that it is nearly impossible to trace the actual choreographic structures of this piece.

ABT’s new production of Gaite parisienne, choreographed by Leonide Massine in 1938 for the historic Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, is equally distant from classicism and romanticism. With outrageous multicolor, multipattern costumes by Christian Lacroix and rich, rosy art nouveau scenery by Zack Brown, ABT’s production has none of the grotesque reverence that so often mars revivals and new productions of important works. More a curiosity than a classic, Gaite parisienne, a story-telling romp complete with dandies, floozies, decadence, jealousy, and virtue rewarded, is a spark, a flash, an utter delight.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Sohl.